Report on my BARS 2015 “Apocalypse and Ruination” panel (chaired by Diane Piccitto)

[Reposted from the BARS blog, by Lucy Johnson, original post found here]

The 2015 British Association for Romantic Studies International Conference was held in Cardiff this July.  Entitled Romantic Imprints, the conference boasted an extraordinary array of interdisciplinary and wide-ranging scholarship on various facets of Romanticism, and delegates were greeted with a feast of ideas from which to choose.  I was lucky enough to attend a number of incredibly interesting and thought-provoking panels, and it is space alone that requires me to limit this report to two panels in particular.

The 1:45 PM Thursday panel I attended was Apocalypse and Ruination, chaired by Diane Piccitto (Mount Saint Vincent University).  This panel took a fascinating and diverse approach to the inspirational pull of apocalyptic imagery on the Romantic imagination, spanning from the real-life destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii to a wide-ranging set of analyses of the depiction of millennium in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.

The first paper was given by Sophie Thomas (Ryerson University, Canada) and was entitled ‘Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Imprint of the Ancient World’.  Thomas explored Romantic responses to the newly excavated Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, both destroyed in the AD 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and the ways in which contemporary writers imagined and reconstructed the ruined image of these places.  Thomas discussed how both Herculaneum and Pompeii were represented as sites where ‘life and death are wedded’ and how excavations of the towns inspired ‘paper museums’ for the modern world.

Objects from the sites, she explained, were extracted from their destroyed context and placed in museums, presented in a beautified style.  These ‘fantasies of re-animation and restoration’, Thomas argued, derived from Pompeii’s position as a site that offered ‘free play of the imagination’ for writers who were compelled by its Romantic mingling of destruction and re-generation through that destruction.

Thomas went on to explore how the ruin of the Villa of Diomedes ‘infused literary responses’, discussing how ‘the impression of a woman’s form…found at the uncovering of Herculaneum’ inspired Felicia Hemans’s 1827 poem ‘The Image in Lava’.  Similarly, William Branwhite Clarke’s ‘Pompeii, a poem’ presents its fall as beneficial to future poetic arts, depicting Pompeii at the height of its former glory and its subsequent destruction as an invaluable source of Romantic inspiration.  Thomas’s excellent paper was especially effective when discussing the very tangible evidence of life and death depicted in the Pompeii poems and how they bridged a gap of time, emblemised most touchingly in Robert Stephen Hawker’s ‘Pompeii’ where ‘the path just worn by human feet…almost reach the listening ear’.

The second paper was delivered by Olivia Murphy (University of Sydney, Australia), entitled ‘Apocalypse Not Quite: Romanticism and the Post-Human World’Murphy discussed how for the early generation of Romantics, the concept of apocalypse or millennium was associated with the possibility for earthly regeneration and ‘the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth’.  People anticipated the millennium with hope rather than fear.  However, for later generations of Romantic texts, and particularly texts that were conceived post-French Revolution, the millennium began to be associated with an increased sense of impending apocalyptic destruction.  Murphy argued that Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel The Last Man depicts the psychological trauma arising from the suspense that collective extinction that could come at any time, and that the later Romantic period heralded our modern negative view of the millennium/apocalypse.  Murphy speculated that the imaginative origins of this conception of apocalypse may be located in the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia that caused the ‘year without a summer’ of 1816, when the Shelleys and Byron gathered at the Villa Diodati.  Indeed, Murphy explored how The Last Man might be viewed as a specifically ‘post-Tambora’ text; where the narrator Lionel Verney muses on the vulnerabilities and interconnectedness of humanity, Murphy described how Morton Paley views The Last Man as ‘apocalypse without millennium.’

The final paper on this panel was given by Kirstyn J. Leuner (Dartmouth College, US), on ‘Mary Shelley’s New Media in The Last Man‘.  In this inventive and interesting paper, Leuner rejected the pervasively argued idea that there is no technological progression in Shelley’s text, and instead focused on the novel’s representations of the diorama as new media.  She contextualised the diorama alongside its predecessor the panorama, discussing how the diorama might be interpreted as a facility for life writing.  Leuner argued that Shelley depicts the diorama as a futuristic mixed media form, a means of archiving media and preserving the past.  Leuner presented an extremely compelling re-reading of the role of ‘future technology’ in The Last Man, a text that has previously been interpreted as lacking in concrete ‘futuristic’ elements; she demonstrated, for example, how the Sybil’s cave could be read as a form of diorama in itself, and argued that the novel specifically presents reading (or the reading of memories) as an act of spectating.  This view was augmented by a series of interesting audience questions that highlighted the unreliability of the narrative voice in Shelley’s novel, suggesting that the story could change or be re-read depending on how it is assembled via the Sybil’s leaves.

On Friday, the 9:30 AM themed panel, Imprinting Anglo-Italian Relations in The Liberal, was chaired by Michael Tomko (Villanova University, US).  This panel was sponsored by the Inter-University Centre for Romantic Studies (University of Bologna, Italy) and is part of a long-running, wider-ranging project focusing on The Liberal and its various contributors.

Serena Baiesi (University of Bologna, Italy) kicked off the panel with her paper, ‘Leigh Hunt as Editor and Contributor to The Liberal‘.  Examining Leigh Hunt’s crucial role in the development of The Liberal, Baiesi argued that the journal was always part of a complex editorial plan, not just the meteoric and badly thought out flash in the pan it has commonly been represented as.  Hunt, Baiesi said, believed passionately that the influencing of public opinion was the only true way of overthrowing despotism, and he aspired to reproduce the ‘English spirit of liberalism’ in Italy via the medium of The Liberal.

Up next was Franca Dellarosa (University of Bari Aldo Moro, Italy).  Her paper, ‘Cockney Imprint: Notes on the Reception of The Liberal, 1822′, focused specifically on the contemporary responses to and reception of The Liberal.  Dellarosa discussed the significance of the journal’s title, referring to the ‘semantic transformation of the meaning of the word: old as well as new’.  Dellarosa’s contextualising of the tumultuous political atmosphere of the time was fascinating, as she explored how the Blackwood’s – arch-enemy of the cockney school – campaign against The Liberal significantly influenced its ultimately negative public reception.

The third paper was by Fabio Liberto, (University of Bologna, Italy).  In ‘Italian and British Representations in The Liberal’, Liberto asked whether The Liberal’s development was indeed ‘lacking in coordination and common sense’, as has so frequently been claimed.  He discussed how Italy was conceptualised by the journal’s developers as a ‘metonymic literary outpost’ to defend the cause of freedom, and discussed Mary Shelley’s use of Italy as an ‘ideological topos’ in her short story contribution to The Liberal, ‘A Tale of the Passions’.  Shelley’s parallel between old and new Italies, Dellarosa argued, was meant as an admonishment to the modern world.

The final paper on this jam-packed panel was presented by Gioia Angeletti (University of Parma, Italy).  In ‘Byron’s Emancipatory Poetics’, Angeletti argued that The Liberal was not simply a disaster but remains a rich and compelling testament to this unique moment in political Romanticism.  She examined how Byron’s desire to return to his native country may allow us to read his writing for The Liberal an attempt at rapprochement with England.  The journal was, for Byron, a ‘bi-cultural project’; never willing to abandon his roots, The Liberal became strikingly personal as well as political.

– Lucy Johnson, University of Chester.

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